Karen Steinwachs, the winemaker for Buttonwood, is an inspirational example of following your dreams. Although she has been a fixture at Buttonwood since 2007, her journey did not begin with anything close to where she is now. She was instead working in management in the technology industry, sitting in an office in a tall urban building and donning a suit. After 20 years in the tech world Karen decided it was time for a change, she wanted a new career one that allowed her to be outdoors working with her hands, a career change that would become a reality for her with hard work and persistence.
After several attempts to be hired to work the seasonal harvest, Karen was accepted to work at Foley Winery for just $7 an hour and only for a 6-week contract. She was warned that it might not be what she was imagining as many people romanticize the winemaking profession until they try it out and realize how dirty your hands really do get. However, after that 6-week harvest internship, she remained working for Foley for three more years and learned everything she could from highly respected local winemaker Norm Yost (who now has Flying Goat Cellars).
After three years at Foley, Karen was ready to take things to the next level and went to work at Fiddlehead cellars with Kathy Joseph, another local legend. It was while working for Fiddlehead that Karen began to learn about Buttonwood and their philosophies.
After three harvests as the assistant winemaker at Fiddlehead Karen went for her ultimate dream and has been with Buttonwood ever since. Betty would be proud, looking down at her farm where Karen works every vintage to express the land and craft a “wine that will provide pleasure at the table and in the glass.”
We invite you to discover more in our interview with Karen Steinwachs, winemaker for Buttonwood Winery.
Betty Williams (1918-2011), was the founder of Buttonwood Farms in 1968. Her mission statement is all about having a “balanced ecological microcosm;” a living, functioning property with the vineyard, farm, animals, and employees all working together sustainably and in harmony. Betty was a founder of the Land Trust of Santa Barbara County and was very involved in local arts and humanities as well. All of this continues to shape Buttonwood as things grow and the world changes.
Buttonwood was sustainable before a sustainable certification was a thing. With vineyard plantings dating back to 1983, the now 39-acre vineyard boasts several different varietals. Sauvignon Blanc is what locals know Buttonwood for first, but taste the lineup and you’ll soon discover that the excellence doesn’t stop there.
What takes Buttonwood’s sustainability to the next level is how the land is used, it’s not just a winery, it’s also a very productive farm.
Having the diversity of fruit trees along with the vineyard is how Betty’s mission to have a “balanced ecological microcosm” comes to fruition. A visit to this special tasting room in Solvang, California is an experience, and different throughout the year depending on the season. Peach season is one of our favorites!
“All of these wines are grown for the table.” With this one sentence Karen Steinwachs sums up the philosophical core of Buttonwood. A working farm as well as vineyard and winery, Buttonwood is centered on the idea that wine’s ultimate purpose is to shine at table, where it can spark conversation and communion with friends and family. I spoke with Karen this week about her farming and winemaking approach, as well as the unique environment that is Buttonwood Farm.
After years in the high-tech world, Steinwachs decided to leave the rat race and pursue a long-held dream of working in the wine industry. An ardent fan of Santa Barbara County wines, she managed to secure a gig at Lincourt in the fall of 2001, working her way up from the bottom as a cellar rat. “I kept talking to the winemaker about ways that the winery could be more efficient, because once you’ve been in management as long as I have been, it’s hard to drop that attitude.” A great student, she quickly worked her way up the ranks of such notable wineries as Foley and Fiddlehead. When the opportunity to take over as winemaker at Buttonwood arose in 2007, she jumped at the chance.
“I was very familiar with Buttonwood from attending their many events. I loved the concept of it being a farm as well as a vineyard.” Aware of the fact that she was stepping into a winery with a style people were familiar with, she approached her first vintage with the goal of learning about the character of the fruit, vinifying every lot separately to gain knowledge about the site character. Through this meticulous approach, she was able to see the strengths and needs of the vineyard, and has gradually brought her own style to the wines to accentuate the site’s best characteristics. “There have been changes since I took over. The wines are now a little more approachable while still being age-worthy. We work a lot on tannin management, because I want to be able to enjoy the wines while I’m still alive. We’ve also worked on bringing more freshness to the whites.”
There is no recipe here; rather, the vagaries of the vintage are allowed to shine and adapted to. “We approach every single wine differently and adjust from year to year as we fine tune the needs of each wine. I grow 10 different grape varieties here, and we’ve sought to make the wines more distinct from each other and really give them their own voice.” This experimentation and exploration extends to the vineyard, where new grape varieties have been planted in the name of making more complete wines. “We’ve grafted some of our Merlot to Malbec and plan to plant some more. And on the white side, we’ve grafted quite a bit of Grenache Blanc, which grows beautifully here. I see it becoming a signature grape of the Los Olivos District AVA.”
The soils at Buttonwood are mostly Santa Ynez series, part of the uniform Ballard-Positas-Santa Ynez series that defines the Los Olivos District, though there is some diatomaceous earth, serpentine and sand in pockets. They also sit on the aquifer that is common throughout the AVA. “We have a very big aquifer here, and a lot of the oldest vineyards in the Santa Ynez Valley are in this part of the valley. There are also a lot of own-rooted vines, and the roots here go incredibly deep.” Much like Fred Brander, the architect of the Los Olivos District, Steinwachs feels the area is still defining itself, but has all the makings of a great AVA. “It’s going to be a tough area to define because it truly is different than the other AVAs here. Our defining factor is that our soils are totally uniform, unlike Sta. Rita Hills, Happy Canyon or Ballard Canyon. I always get a minerality, which is a word that can be hard to define, but there is a rocky quality in our site that I find throughout the AVA. The wines also tend to have great acidity, in part due to the big temperature shifts from day to night we have here.”
Like many vineyards in the area, Buttonwood excels with several different Bordeaux and Rhone varieties. However, Steinwachs sees two standouts in her work there thus far. “I have to credit Chris Burroughs for the tagline ‘Blanc and Franc.’ Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Franc have been here since the beginning and grow beautifully.” Even in cool years like 2010 or 2011, the Cabernet Franc here (as with all of their Bordeaux varieties) isn’t green or vegetal; rather, there is earth, cigar box, and raspberry fruit, with only a hint of pyrazine, an unmistakably Californian expression of the grape that has the balance and presence of great Bourgueil. “Cabernet Franc is a fussy little diva, it’s like Pinot Noir. You have to grow it perfectly or it throws a tantrum, you have to baby it in the cellar, but it makes great wines. We do focus on leaf pulling and shoot thinning in the vineyard to avoid that green character, but generally we don’t find that bell pepper character from this site.”
The farming at Buttonwood is some of the most thoughtful in the Valley. While it incorporates elements of organics and biodynamics, it is most reminiscent to me of Japanese iconoclast Masanobu Fukuoka’s philosophy, adapting to the natural needs and environment of the site. “We say that we’re farming ‘biologically.’ We don’t use any synthetic herbicides or insecticides,” says Steinwachs. “Our theory is that if we keep the plants healthy and maintain a diverse environment, they’ll protect themselves. Philosophically, we’ve really got our own way of farming, which is organically minded, self-contained, and focusing intensely on what nutrients the soil may need. We’re constantly testing the soil to see how we can address the needs of our plants.” As her friend and fellow winemaker Nick De Luca (a proponent of Fukuoka-inspired farming) says, “terroir is an unplanted field,” and in this sense, the farming at Buttonwood seems geared towards capturing the essence of the land as accurately and naturally as possible.
Buttonwood Vineyard and Farm looks and feels very much like old school California. Yet it also points the way to what the vineyard of California’s future will likely look like: wider spacing to address our growing water issues; cover crops growing wild; polyculture, with fruits and vegetables growing alongside grapes; in essence, a self-contained ecosystem where the farming adapts to the needs of the place rather than dogmatically following a prescribed set of rules. “It’s not about me as a winemaker,” says Steinwachs. “We farm for deliciousness, whether that’s tomatoes or wine. We love the fact that people are coming back to the table. It’s not just the eating and drinking, it’s the communal aspect of people getting together. And that’s what Buttonwood is about.”
Curiosity guides the choices made in not only what wines she makes, but how she makes her wines. You may recognize her name, she’s one of Santa Barbara’s most prolific women in winemaking, Karen Steinwachs. Widely recognized as the talented winemaker behind the wines of Buttonwood, however, her private label wines of Seagrape Wine Co., express another side of Karen that will leave a stamp on the history of Santa Barbara County wine country.
Where did the name Seagrape come from?
Karen and her late husband were fond of their time spent abroad. While living in St. Croix they would marvel at the Seagrape trees on Grape Tree Beach. These grape trees, as the locals would call them, became the muse for their label, recalling a time of togetherness and fond memories from which their Seagrape wines were created. Karen is often asked if her wines are made with these sea grapes– they are not. They are made from grapes that grow beautifully from the Santa Barbara County’s ocean influenced vineyards. Initially, the focus of Seagrape was on Sta. Rita Hills, with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir as the primary varietals she produced. Karen continues with that tradition but has expanded to welcome room for exploration and with that, we are excited to promote her first release of Gewurztraminer. (Surely not her last, you’ll have to taste for yourself!)
This unique German grape may be intimidating to pronounce but in Karen’s skilled hands she made it into a lovely approachable wine. This grape is not commonly seen in this area and can be made in many different ways similar to Reisling. One may expect this to be a sweet wine. However, Seagrape’s 2017 Gewurztraminer is bone dry, with a nice balance of plushness and vibrancy with a zesty finish.
In our interview with Karen she shares what she enjoys about having her own label in addition to making wines for a bigger winery like Buttonwood– being able to explore a new varietal like Gewurztraminer is one of them.
We featured Karen’s unique story on how she and her husband fled their lives in the fast-paced tech world for a quieter life in Santa Ynez Valley and henceforth Karen found her calling as a winemaker, in our 2018 interview and blog. Her story is one about creating one’s own destiny, and her wines, whether Buttonwood or Seagrape, reflect her ability to go with the flow and know when to take the driver’s seat. This balance is one that all winemakers grapple with but Karen makes look effortless.
At the Los Olivos Wine Merchant & Cafe we focus on providing a true wine country experience. Much of our produce for the Café is organically grown at our Café farm in Los Olivos. And our award-winning wine selection of over 500 mostly local wines compliments our fresh wine country cuisine. As a hub for the local California Central Coast wine scene, we love getting to know our local winemakers and sharing their stories with you! We welcome you to check out more of our interviews and blogs here.
In 1997 Christine and Stevan Larner finally saw their dream of being in the wine business as a reality. Purchasing a 130 acre south facing parcel, perfectly situated in what is now Ballard Canyon, they began the Larner family legacy. Their son Michael was working as a Geologist in Colorado prior to the new family endeavor, but he always knew he wanted to come back to the earth, and being able to pass something down for multiple generations was fascinating to him. “The legacy aspect was my biggest selling point.” And so began the long and meaningful process of planting a vineyard and becoming a winemaker. Michael earned his Masters Degree in Viticulture and Enology from UC Davis and has been making wine since 1999.
Michael’s experience as a geologist before being a winemaker, allows him to see the winemaking and viticulture aspects much more from the land itself. He wants “to be firmly grounded to the earth” which has multiple meanings in Michael’s life. Leaving his career to join his family in their vineyard and winery endeavor gave him a sense of creating something that was always there, a legacy. His winemaking style is all about the site expression, allowing the wines to be the speaking word from the vineyard.
“Something there was present, this is the true essence of terroir, it’s coming from the land. As a geologist I am very comfortable with that, because I have studied the earth.”
As a winemaker Michael enjoys experimenting with different fermentation techniques, yeasts, and barrel choices. The process of giving and take allow the terroir to speak as loudly as it can through his wines. The Larner Vineyard and Winery team consist of more than just Michael, his wife Christina, mother Christine, and sister Monica each offer their own distinct look into the legacy. Figuring out where each wine will fit within the Larner program is a family affair. As a wine critic living in Rome, Monica looks at the wines from the eyes of the critic– how it’s going to do in the market. Christina is much more in tune with where the wines fit in from a generation standpoint, and Christine with her background in business is “the price guru.”
“The land was speaking louder than the winemakers.”
Michael is not only a fantastic viticulturist and winemaker but also co-founded the Ballard Canyon AVA. Ballard Canyon is a north-south running valley totaling 7,000 acres, one of the smallest in California. Described as the ‘Goldie Locks’ AVA, because it’s not too hot, not too cold, but just right for a variety like Syrah. A slightly warm ripening interval, but also a cooling effect– so you get that pepper spice coupled with fruit which is essentially what Syrah– makes Ballard Canyon ideal growing conditions for the Syrah grape. There is 17 vineyards total in the Ballard Canyon AVA but just 6 produce wine, the rest is sold to other wineries. Currently, only 600 of 7,000 acres are planted, over 300 of those acres are planted to Syrah. Proving that “everyone sort of knew; ‘this is our champion’, this is what we want to bring forward.”
In Part One of our interview with Michael, he shares the backstory of how Ballard Canyon AVA evolved from an idea to reality.
In Part Two of our interview, Michael lights up about what makes Larner wines “Grounded”.
Did you enjoy this blog? You might enjoy some of our other blogs about our local winemakers. We’ve had the pleasure of sharing the stories of winemakers like Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat, Karen Steinwachs of Buttonwood, and Wes Hagen of J. Wilkes, to name a few. Shop our online Wine Merchant anytime to enjoy the fruits of their labor!
I was a teenage indie rock obsessive. As such, I embraced the genre’s most lo-fi practitioners, particularly Guided By Voices. Their best works, Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes, are laden with tape hiss, false starts, songs that stop abruptly and cut into other songs, and a generally shambolic aesthetic; rather than trying to mask the economic shortcomings of their recording devices, they celebrated them, creating a whole universe that felt like a direct line from their bedroom to mine. In the past few years, a handful of vintners in California have taken an analogous approach in their winemaking and farming, creating soulful wines despite their shoestring budgets. Associated most closely with the natural wine movement, these are analog wines for a digital era, looking back to go forward. Mike Roth, formerly of Martian Ranch and now launching his own project, the aptly named Lo-Fi, has been at the forefront of this movement in Santa Barbara County. I met with him this week in the record-high heat at his new estate vineyard in Los Alamos to discuss the future and taste his first releases.
“So this is the Mullet,” declares Roth. “Business on the front slope, party on the back.” Roth’s vineyard name befits the nature of his new venture. While the approach and technique are quite serious and methodical, the project is meant to be fun and accessible, “wines for the proletariat” as Roth likes to refer to it. Planted just a few weeks ago, the vineyard was created using solely recycled materials from other local vineyards, installed by Roth with the help of friends and family. The steeper, southwest-facing front slope is planted to Gamay, while the gentler back slope is Cabernet Franc, unique varietal choices that have shown early promise in Los Alamos at other sites.
Roth gained notoriety at Martian for his idiosyncratic approach to farming, carrying heavy crop loads early on and dropping fruit late to offset our area’s tendency toward fall heat spikes, allowing for ripe fruit at low brix and in turn, lower alcohols. He plans to farm his estate in a similar fashion, with an approach that embraces the natural ecosystem as much as possible. “Farming here will be organic, though I’d really prefer to avoid any additions for the most part.” The soils at Mullet, like most of Alisos Canyon just east of here, are Chamise shale loam. These acidic shale-based soils, which contain a fair amount of clay, have shown great promise for Cabernet Franc in particular at sites such as Thompson and Martian. “Planting here is meter by meter. I hope to eventually dry farm it, there’s enough clay here that I think it could work,” states Roth.
Roth’s first release under the Lo-Fi label is as much a mission statement as a wine. Sourced from the organically farmed Coquelicot Vineyard near the Santa Ynez River, it is 100% Cabernet Franc, fermented with native yeasts, aged in neutral vessels, made entirely without the use of sulfur. Philosophically, it encapsulates everything Roth is about. “It definitely has a bit of a Bourgueil thing going on,” proudly states Roth. He is referencing one of the Loire Valley’s great Cabernet Franc regions, and while I see a family resemblance, I find his rendition under Lo-Fi to be distinctly Santa Ynez. Its generosity of fruit and texture are unmistakably California, and the herbal and spice nuances, which range from fresh tobacco and roasted tomato to exotic notes of Oaxacan mole negro and wild sage, aren’t found outside of this area. There is a similarity to other local practitioners working in an early-picked style- Lieu Dit, Roark, and Buttonwood– though the soulfulness of Roth’s take is his own.
While it is still early going for Roth’s new projects, I anticipate the future for his label and his vineyard highly, with forthcoming releases of Riesling, Chenin Blanc, and Gamay to fill out his portfolio. He is an artist working in the medium of grapes, following a vision that does not adhere to trends. As he dives into this new work, unencumbered by the expectations of others, I’m reminded of a classic Guided By Voices lyric: “Watch me jumpstart as the old skin is peeled See an opening and bust into the field Hidden longings no longer concealed”
What spurs our obscure obsessions as wine lovers? How does a grape like Melon de Bourgogne or Carignan capture our attention through the sea of Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon? What drives a vineyard owner to plant Blaufrankisch in the middle of Los Olivos, or a winemaker to devote fanatical attention to a grape like Picpoul? Much like falling in love with another human being, falling in love with a grape often has an intangible, probably chemical, element that can be difficult to articulate. To delve further into one of my own obsessions, Semillon, I spoke to my favorite producer of the grape in Santa Barbara County.
Kevin Law is a soft-spoken winemaker who bucks the trend of modern winemaking promotion. He spends no time on Facebook or Twitter, and rather than talk up his achievements, he is constantly pushing himself to do better, never satisfied, knowing he can create something with even greater intensity and site expression, that he can dial in the next vintage just slightly more. To provide full disclosure, Kevin has been a good friend of mine since we worked a harvest together 6 years ago, and I’m always stunned that someone who is crafting such beautiful wines isn’t content or resting on his laurels. I sat down and spoke with Kevin this past week about his Semillon program under the Luceant and Luminesce labels (the name changed to Luceant with the 2012 harvest due to a trademark dispute with another winery), and how his obsessive love for this grape, and the best way to express it, drove him to craft one of the great white wines of Santa Barbara County.
Kevin’s love for Semillon originally began with a bottle that, thanks to Kevin, has also become one of my benchmarks for great California wine, Kalin. “Their Semillon was really the wine that made me fall in love with the grape. Bottle aged for usually around 10 years before release, it comes from vines planted in the 1800s in gravel, with cuttings from Yquem. It’s highly mineral yet rich, and still youthful at 15 or 20 years of age.” It is this ability to age that is part of what makes Semillon so special. To taste an aged bottle of Yquem’s Ygrec, or some of the top bottlings from Hunter Valley like Tyrrell’s Vat 1, is an unparalleled drinking experience. “Due to its chemistry and phenolic structure, Semillon makes for very long lived wines, more along the lines of Marsanne or Roussanne in their aging trajectory.”
For his own Semillon, Kevin’s search took him to Buttonwood Vineyard in the heart of Santa Ynez. “Buttonwood attracted me because of the vine age, which is rare for this area period, but to have 35-year-old Semillon in particular is pretty special,” says Law. “It sits on a gravelly mesa and the climate is just about perfect.” To channel the purity of this site, Kevin relies on winemaking that is both minimal and very thoughtful in its approach. “Since the initial vintage I’ve started utilizing more stainless steel to preserve its bright minerality and freshness. I’m still not hitting the wine with any sulfur until April or May. The wine undergoes whole berry fermentation on the skins for three or four days to emphasize texture and dryness, highlighting the minerality rather than the fruit. It is then basket pressed, and finishes primary in tank and neutral barrel.”
In an all too common tale for Semillon, Buttonwood grafted these blocks over to other grape varieties recently, and what little they have left will remain for their estate. This is the tragedy and difficulty of working with obscure varieties like these as a small producer; unless a farmer is madly in love with the grape, it’s just too tempting to plant something more commercially viable in its place. Kevin is now on the quest for a new Semillon site, and has some pretty specific criteria. “Old vines are a huge factor for me. Vineyards that are reminiscent of Bordeaux tend to be ideal- gravel with a little bit of alluvium, and moderately warm. Santa Ynez, particularly the middle to eastern part of the valley, is one of the perfect areas in California for Semillon. My goal is to continue to capture the true expression of 100% Semillon, and show how great this variety can be. And if no one likes it I’ll drink it all myself.” Now THAT is what I call obsession.
Today we are offering Kevin’s 2011 Semillon. It is one of the most profound wines I’ve had from our area, and if you are a fan of mineral, balanced, age-worthy white wines, I highly suggest you grab a couple- one for today, and one for the cellar. I have no doubt that this will be a 10 year, if not 20 year, wine. If nothing else, I hope people taste the beauty in this bottle and start requesting more wines like it; maybe we’ll finally see a few new Semillon plantings!
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